My desk is at the garden end of our sitting room and, surprisingly, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. For I have made an important discovery about the inevitable continuous distractions of house and garden. Everyone knows the routine ones: the nagging knowledge that the room behind should be tidied, dusted, swept; the persistent desire for endless snacks; an irrational urge to water the houseplants; the little fly that for the past five minutes has taken over the typewriter, balancing from one key to another, constantly wiping its legs so that I wonder if my machine is really in need of cleaning. There is the ever present pleasure of keeping an eye on the birds and just gazing out the window. The last occupation can consume an amazing amount of time, but I have found that by no means is it wasted time. It is in fact essential.
My discovery has to do with new and unexpected distractions. When they happen there is a quickening of thought that sooner or later impels action. It's wonderful what goes on in a relatively small place when one is watching and looking. Because of the size of our garden, the unexpected tends to be in miniature. I sometimes wonder if this affects my aspirations. For instance, four years ago a friend donated a very special plant which apparently produces spectacular flowers. It took its place in the overcrowded garden and has vigorously produced long spiky leaves each summer, but no flowers. This year a tall straight stem has appeared with a blob on top. For two weeks we have been waiting for the blob to unfurl. By now I can see it's going to be pale blue, but the shape and form are yet to be revealed. This is the most protracted new happening we have had and the garden is alight with anticipation.
A friend who has a much larger garden told me that one morning, early, as she was reading, she suddenly saw a magnificent stag motionless under the walnut tree. That's a distraction on a breathtaking scale for those of us who indulge in mental somersaults of delight at the presence of a hedgehog. Could it be the genesis of a Tolstoyan novel?
For one's attention to be caught, alerted and then allowed to develop and contemplate, the unexpected distractions need to be firmly rooted in familiar surroundings. I suppose the growing, searching child is always in each of us. It's easier to be bold and take exploratory leaps when you are based in your own thoroughly known territory: aware of the safety and comfort without having to seek them. Amid the familiar you can concentrate on the unexpected without being drawn away by unfamiliar details. With singleness of purpose you can, if necessary, consider it each day as we do with the spiky flower; as we did with the mouse in the woodshed, which incidentally kept us lively for weeks while we were finding out what it was that so interested the dog. The mouse certainly appeared in print and I have a feeling the spiky plant is already making its protracted impact. When something new or unexpected takes place in familiar surroundings it throws new light on this familiarity.It gives different patterns and insights within a recognizable framework: rather as if an old picture has been taken to be cleaned. The result is an overall brightness.
This essay has taken so long to write (due to innumerable distractions of a varying nature) that the spiky plant has fulfilled its promise. The head of blue flowers lasted for weeks and now, as the creeper falls brilliant red over the holly tree, seed pods hang heavy from the miniature stalks. I wonder how many flowers it will produce next year. . .?